B’Rock (Beyond Baroque) have made a name for themselves in their native Belgium and beyond, as an adventurous orchestra who mix well-known and seldom-heard Baroque music, as well as taking on modern music and, where they feel it helps to reinvigorate the approach, to involve video and movement. This, their 10th anniversary year, brought them to London for their debut performance at the Proms and a delightful sold-out Saturday afternoon chamber concert at Cadogan Hall which was, however, a perfectly straightforward concert of Italian Baroque compositions and none the worst for that. B’Rock works with a variety of prominent guest conductors and the performance was directed from the violin by Dmitry Sinkovsky.

B'Rock © Jens Mollenvanger
B'Rock
© Jens Mollenvanger

16 musicians filled the orchestral space very well, and featured both harpsichord and concert organ, bassoon and Baroque guitar amongst the well balanced – acoustically and spatially – strings sections. Vivaldi’s Violin Concerto in C major RV177 opened the concert and after only two movements moved straight into a haunting key change, long-held unison note from the second violins, marking the opening of the Sinfonia al Santo Sepolcro.

The entire programme focussed on Italian Baroque music from the first three decades of the 18th century. Of the three composers, Vivaldi is now the most famous of course, but both Antonio Caldara and Francesco Geminiani were well respected in their day. Geminiani was, like Vivaldi, a virtuoso violinist; trained by Corelli, it seems he had quite an interesting life, which included a few years in London, where his dazzling violin playing took him to court performances, accompanied by Handel, and the publication of his theoretical treatise “The Art of Playing the Violin”, but also a spell in a debtor’s prison. Geminiani’s “La Folia” Concerto grosso in D minor, after Corelli, is probably his most-performed work yet also one of the least well-known of the many variations on the Folia. Surprisingly, it was listed “first performance at the Proms” as indeed were all the other works on the programme. For me, it was the point where the concert really started to gain momentum, with markedly contrasting sections of slow, careful orchestral weight, interspersed with fast and dancing pulses, including some notably lively flourishes of Baroque guitar and cello.

Then the high point of the afternoon – the fireworks of an incredibly theatrical and exuberant D major violin concerto “Grosso Mogul”, with Dmitry Sinkovsky’s suitably virtuosic high-pitched cadanzas in the first and third movements, at all times ideally supported by the focused and responsive B’Rock orchestra.

B’Rock was joined by Canadian-born Greek mezzo-soprano Mary-Ellen Nesi for three vocal items, starting with Caldara’s “Quel buon pastor son io” from La morte d’Abel. That this piece should be a “first performance at the Proms” is less surprising; despite being highly regarded in his lifetime, Caldara is best known today for a handful of oratorio and opera. And yet he wrote beautifully-crafted, movingly expressive music for the voice, which is gradually undergoing something of a revival. Written originally for Farinelli, the work obviously suited Mary-Ellen Nesi’s range very well. Hers is a rich, full voice and although rather breathy in the middle register, her legato phrases and an unaccompanied passage were a particular joy.

The two concluding Vivaldi vocal motets were very different to the Caldara, both needing dramatic bursts of coloratura and descents to the chest voice. A little more dynamic contrast from Ms Nesi would have been welcome, but the orchestral playing worked very well with the singer, with precision and sense of drama but never threatening to overwhelm.

The programme introduction had made a point of referring to Dmitri Sinkovsky as director, violinist and countertenor, as we finally experienced for ourselves with a charming encore – the final duet of Handel’s “Giulio Cesare”, Caro! Bella!; with very similar timbre, the two operatic voices produced an engaging finale to a most enjoyable concert.